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Victory poses dilemma for student protesters

After volatile demonstrations forced out top academics at the University of Prishtina, the leaders are divided over what the future holds.

It all began at the end of January, when Roland Sylejmani, a student of sociology and literature at the University of Prishtina, created an event on Facebook, urging his fellow students to take to the streets and protest against fraud allegedly committed by academics.

“We  wanted  everything  to be spontaneous.  We didn’t want any politics involved, this was intended to be a completely student-driven protest,” he said. Angered by  revelations that the rector, Ibrahim Gashi, had advanced his academic credentials by  publishing  shoddy  work  in  a questionable foreign journal, hundreds heeded Sylejmani’s call.

It  seemed to be  the  tipping point for an institution long plagued by scandals and basic issues about the quality of education.

Violence  erupted  some  two weeks after the initial protest. Police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse crowds outside the rector’s office and arrested more than 30  protesters. Many  others  were injured.  

The demonstrations were the biggest story in Kosovo for days, and made news internationally. Gashi resigned last weekend. Members of the university’s governing council followed suit. The move conceded to protesters their biggest demand.

However, it  also  halted  their momentum,  exposing  divisions in the loose coalition of students, political activists and members of civil society. Some wanted the demonstrations to peacefully call attention to problems of academic integrity in Kosovo’s main university. Others pushed  for  a  more  militant approach, seeing the university’s problems  as  only  part  of  a  wider corrupt establishment.

Despite  the  almost  unprecedented  act  of  a  senior official resigning under public pressure, Sylejmani feels disappointed with the ultimate shape of the protests. He accuses the student movement Study, Critique, Action, SKV,  which  is  linked  to Vetevendosje, of co-opting the protest  and  of  escalating  confrontation with the police when demonstrators tried to force their way into the rectorate.

However,  Durim  Jasharaj,  of SKV, said  the protest  always had an inherent political quality to it.

“The true reason for the protest was the need to change the management of the university, which the  parties  in  power  have  controlled since the end of war,” he said.

“A significant number of members of our organization are Vetevendosje activists,” he admitted. “We don’t hide that, but we are not instruments of any political party. We didn’t aim for anything secret.”

The view from outside

The American University of Kosovo is the country’s most prestigious institution of higher learning. The 6,300 euro-per-year tuition fee is out of the reach to most people in Kosovo – although more than 60 percent of students receive scholarships of some kind, according to the University. The problems that students complain about at the university, such as professors just not showing up to class, and cheating scandals, are almost unheard of at AUK. Many students seek out AUK specifically to avoid Kosovo’s largest public university.

“Attending that college was never an option for me,” Getoar Krasniqi said. “The University of Prishtina protests should have started a long time ago,” he continued, adding that the rector was only one of many problems.

In the wake of the protests and the resignation of the rector, students at AUK hope better days lie ahead for their counterparts at the University of Prishtina. “The outcome of the protests will instill fear into those who think they can act like [ex-rector] Gashi,” said Bardh Hoxha.

Hoxha attended the protests out of respect for his parents: “I went to the protests because my parents went to that university. Back then it had prestige. It was a credible and valid institution.

Photo: Atdhe Mulla

AUK has a lot of opportunities, but I know great minds who went to University of Prishtina,” he added.  Edison Jakurti, from Gjakova, also took part in the protests. Last Tuesday, he sat on the stairs outside of Gashi’s office until the police arrived.

According to Jakurti, “Things will definitely change. I think all students should join the movement, not just University of Prishtina students, because it is the only university that will always stay here.”

Wider significance

Gashi, meanwhile,  described his  resignation  as  a  “moral  act,” and  said  he  hoped  it  would  help return  the  university  to  normal. He did not connect it directly to the protests, but accused the students of being “used and politicized by some NGOs and political parties.”

Recent  unrest  in  Bosnia ,  in which people have demonstrated against  the  government  in  more than  30  communities  across  the country, may have led officials in Kosovo to pressure Gashi to stand down, Jasharaj believes. The government  “thought  it would be better to let the rector go than worry about what might happen to them,” he said.

Sociologist  Besnik  Pula  also connects the protests to broader dissatisfaction with the way Kosovo is run.

“It is clear to people that most of the problems are a result of the current governance,” he said. “The problems at the university, for instance, occurred because the institution was run in the clientelistic interests of the parties in power.”

“I believe this might play a role in the  way  people  will  approach protests in the future,” he continued.

Tradition of protest

While the recent protests were the first of their kind since the war ended in 1999, demonstrations have a long, important history at the university. Student  revolts  erupted   in 1968, 1981, 1981 and 1997, over demands for more rights for Kosovo Albanians. But Hydajet Hyseni, today an MP, who took part in those protests, is reluctant to draw comparisons.

“Those were motivated mainly by noble demands, which  had  a democratic character, of liberty,” he said.

For now, meanwhile, the protest organizers are regrouping and planning their next move. Sylejmani, who initially called for the protests on  Facebook,  is hoping to continue peaceful protests  over  other  problems  in  the university.  One idea being floated is a dance-protest  in  front  of  the university administration building.

As for Jasharaj, of SKV, he hopes the recent protests will be the first of many.

“This is a small victory and we will continue. People finally understood that they can achieve their goals through well-organized protests,” he concluded.

*This article was initially published in 2014 in the February 14-27 print issue of Prishtina Insight. To browse seven years of Prishtina Insight online, click here to become a subscriber.

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